Venus in Fists 

Lou Reed gets all healthful and New Age-y, but cross him and you might still lose an eye.

"I'll do a story on '60s musician and heroin icon Lou Reed becoming a martial arts warrior the day you get me an interview with Mr. Lu-Tang Clan himself," I jokingly tell a PR lady one day.

"You are now on the phone with Lou Reed and Master Ren," she says a few weeks later.

Crap, crap, crap. Be careful how you bluff and bluster, people.

Um, uh ... Mr. Reed. Is it fair to say you got into this style of tai chi because it's a real ass-kicker?

[Audible pause] "What? A what-kicker?" an insulted, scraggly-sounding voice says. The rock god who has David Bowie in his Top Eight seems pissed, and I have a feeling this interview won't go well.

Let's back up: A couple months ago I got a bizarre press release stating that the former Velvet Underground frontman was doing the music and narration for a fitness DVD. Now, when I think about the guy who sings It's such a perfect day during the heroin overdose scene in Trainspotting, I think: fitness. That's like Dylan doing a yoga video. Or Van Morrison teaching Pilates.

"Is Lou Reed even still alive?" was my first thought. "And what the hell is he doing being fit? Shouldn't he have, like, IVs of synthetic opiates trailing him on rolling cradles?"

Sure enough, a DVD arrives in the mail a couple of weeks later. The cover reads "Chen Taijiquan: Lao Jia Yi Lu & Straight Sword. Master Ren Guang-Yi. Music and Narration by Lou Reed." On the back, Master Ren poses in a meadow with a sword. The text explains that Ren worked as "the martial arts choreographer in the ground-breaking Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain." Underneath, Lou Reed is quoted, saying, "The music gives you energy." Christ on a corndog. We have entered the twilight zone. What? Really? How? Why?

We need to go back even further for the kids. Born in 1942, Reed got famous by age 23. Andy Warhol loved him, became the Velvets' manager, and stuck them with model/singer Nico. By 1972, Reed went solo with "Walk on the Wild Side," cultivated a junkie fag look, and spent the rest of his career pissing off critics and fans alike by doing whatever he damn well pleases. He made an entire album of electronic feedback called Metal Machine Music. Somewhere in the '80s, he started getting healthy, but being a rich New York celebrity means you just don't just go to the YMCA for some cardio. Enter badass Master Ren Guang-Yi. This guy is basically Pai Mei from Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

Young Ren grew up in rural China learning martial arts and was sent to train with the masters of tai chi in his teens. According to interviews, the pupil didn't want to study tai chi, because it's for old people who want to meditate in the park while making funny poses. But Ren's new master said he was old-school, a direct familial descendant of the Shaolin monks who had perfected and kept the martial art for centuries. Ren's master then proceeded to kick the living shit out of him with all those wishy-washy stances and hand movements. 'Cuz here's the thing about tai chi — it's all based on Newtonian physics.

Those monks grokked the concept that each object has a center of gravity, and if you want to knock it down, all you have do is get it off-center. Tai chi became the opposite. Ren's first exercises were six months of simply doing the different poses of tai chi with a matchbox on his head for twelve hours a day. All the moves train the body to intuitively return to equilibrium despite the interjection of outside forces. Come at a tai chi master hard, and he is soft, flowing around your punches. But show him your soft spots or get off balance, and you're done.

So anyway, Reed says he was doing tai chi in New York when someone turned him onto Master Ren. Anybody who sees Ren do his thing wants to train with him, the musician claims, and if you watch the video, you can sort of tell why. Ren looks calm and steady in the forest, making his flowing hand and feet poses, then BAM! He throws a blurry punch to the jaw of an imaginary foe. "It's called the exploding power," Reed says. "It's so fast, you can't even see it."

Reed started training with Ren two hours a day. His posture got better. The moving meditation de-stressed him. He became more limber. His blood pressure went down. "It's like ice cream to me," Reed says.

So when Ren needed help slanging his DVD, Reed signed on, which brings us to the disc. It's really bizarre to see the former glam-rock icon in baggy man-jammies introducing tai chi moves. His choice of music is even more bizarre — a one-note, synthetic drone extending for hours during Ren's routine. It sounds as if someone hit a note on a keyboard, farted around with it for five minutes in Pro Tools, then put it on an infinite loop. Test audiences crawled up my walls listening to the tense note.

The tension is the point, says Reed, who spent years thinking about things like how to truly play a D. "The energy of it is in the bass," he says. "I used a lot of gadgets and it took a bunch of time. I don't have specifics." Okay.

During the second part of the DVD, where the audience is supposed to do the movements in time with Master Ren, the music sounds more like a rave. The single note is all sped up: wawawawawawawa. "That's not the same note!" Reed protests. "It's more rocking." Fair enough, Lou, since my fifteen minutes with fame is almost up and I have one more question.

What do you say to the editors at FHM magazine who laughed at you posing like a kung fu warrior?

"What?" Reed says with disgust.

What do you say to the people who can't reconcile your classic Velvet Underground druggy image with this healthy New Age one?

"That was forty years ago!" he implores. "This is 2006! 2007! My God! I can't worry about things like that. If I did, I wouldn't do anything! I can't live in 1967 for people. That's crazy. I have a broader palette. Everything I do, I've always tried to do the best that I could as honestly as I could from wherever space I was viewing things at the time. I can't satisfy everyone, and I'm not trying to."

My bad, Mr. Reed. Thanks for your time. Readers: If you have a bad back, or need to get limber, Master Ren recommends two hours of tai chi a day. For aspiring rock stars: Be careful how you bluff and bluster during your early years. Those poses will stalk you for generations like a vengeful ninja. And Mr. Reed: Sorry for sassing you, sir. You haven't used your tai chi skills on the mean streets of New York, but regardless, I'm positive that even at age 64, the Lu-Tang Clan ain't nothing to fuck with.

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